The term “internal communications” when it comes to company email usually makes rainbow-colored vomit bubble up at the back of my throat. It’s one of those sterile jargon phrases put together by HR departments to suck the color out of life. The objective of jargon like this is to create a little distance between people and work, because when we’re at work, we’re not people: we’re “resources.” Resources do work, and when they talk to each other, it’s not conversation, it’s “internal communication.”

So I can understand why you might think using a word like “culture” in the context of corporate existence is Orwellian at best: clearly, “cultures” in corporations grow on unclean soap dishes in unisex bathrooms. But when it comes to startups, where the distance between work and people is not very far, culture is everything. When everyone in the company works on the same floor as you, and you know everybody by name (even the HR person, if you have one), you can’t afford to treat people like resources. Their sense of belonging is just as important to their long-term survival at the company as their physical and financial well-being.

One of the ways a startup can drain the drudgery out of corporate email is to turn the all@ email into a vehicle for creative disruption. Open up the all@ email to conversations instead of just announcements from the megaphone of management. Treat the all@ email like open mic night at a bad comedy club. Share that article you just read on TechCrunch. Make an animated GIF of the pig’s eyeball Paul ate at the last company cookout. Reply to stupid questions from the project management team with memes. Put googly-eyes on your back-end developer’s corporate mugshot.

I’m not proposing turning your inbox into a barrel full of monkeys. You’re just adding a few monkeys. Startups are nimble because they react quickly to change, and they need stimuli to nurture that reactivity. It’s important to remember, a little distraction can actually boost productivity, contrary to common sense.

Some Ground Rules

We’ve all heard that saying about nooses and long ropes, so it’s important to establish what’s OK and what’s not OK to post to the company all@ email when you onboard your employees. For example:

  • Avoid politics, religion, and sex. These topics are polarizing, and generate dialogue among employees that can alienate minority viewpoints. The point of democratizing the all@ email is to bring people together by creating a safe place for them to communicate.
  • Make it clear that while the all@ email is a place for two-way communication, it’s not a place for debate, especially about company policy. Don’t let your team be mislead by the term “democratization” when it comes to company culture: your company has been and always will be an authoritarian dictatorship.
  • Don’t grouse about the people who pay your bills. If you’d be uncomfortable with an all@ email being published on the Web for all your clients to see, don’t send it.
  • If your startup is a too big for one all@ email, create an all@ email for each department. You’ll get more flavorful email camaraderie (i.e., the developers’ dev@ email will be incomprehensible to everyone else).
  • A quick email to announce that Mark’s kid is selling Girl Scout cookies is OK. Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies. If you don’t, you’re a monster and you should go home.

The Upshot

The end result of democratizing the workplace isn’t warm fuzzies. (I recognize warm fuzzies aren’t worth a buck.) It’s about removing barriers that prevent people from doing their work, so they can do it better, faster, and more efficiently. A free all@ email promotes a workplace where employees aren’t afraid to talk to each other, no matter how ridiculous the subject matter. People who feel like they can express themselves at work without fear of alienation are more confident, collaborative, and outgoing, and in a startup environment where a small number of people are wearing a lot of hats, these qualities weigh heavily on a person’s ability to be creative and take initiative.

This post originally appeared on Leap, the branding agency for innovators®.